J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Elizabeth, Simeon, and the Cats

I was already planning to use the post-Valentine’s mood to offer another installment of Boston 1775’s very intermittent “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” series. Then I read Caitlin G. D. Hopkins’s articles on Elizabeth Palmer of Little Compton, Rhode Island, and knew my tale would have to take second place.

Caitlin’s inquiry began in 2009 with Palmer’s gravestone, which reads:

In Memory of
Should have been the
Wife of Mr.
who died Augst. 14th
1776 in the 64th Year
of her Age.
Caitlin added, “To make matters worse, Elizabeth’s gravestone stands next to a stone dedicated to Lidia Palmer (d.1754), who was the wife of Simeon Palmer.” Was Simeon secretly pining for Elizabeth? If Elizabeth never became Simeon Palmer’s wife, why did the stone neglect to mention her surname? Who erected that stone anyway?

Commenter Randy Nonenmacher offered a 1901 reference with more answers. The explanation begins:
The first church of Little Compton, R. I. was organized in 1704 under Rev. Richard Billings, a man of prominence and ability, much beloved, and exerted a strong influence over his charge. He had one idiosyncrasy, however; he firmly believed in cats as an article of diet, and fatted them for the purpose.

Amongst his parishioners was a man, Simeon Palmer, of the fine old family resident in Little Compton. He was wealthy married first Lydia Dennis, Aug. 25, 1745, and had Susannah, Gideon, Humphrey, Sarah, Walter and Patience. At some time between 1745 and 1752 he had sunstroke which left him mildly insane and he adopted the views of his minister on cats and insisted on his family using them for food.
Can this marriage be saved?

As Caitlin notes, Victorian antiquarians of the sort who preserved this tale loved stories about eccentrics, and may have embellished them, or even made them up to explain oddities like the Elizabeth Palmer gravestone. I wonder what Sibley’s Harvard Graduates says about the Rev. Mr. Billings, class of 1698. A 1906 history of the Little Compton church dismisses the story (carefully not mentioning the minister’s alleged role) as the concoction of “the good old aunties of our town.” That book also notes that the epitaph inspired a 1905 novel (set in the nineteenth century) titled Saint Abigail of the Pines.

To me this story feels authentic because it ends with an accommodation among people driven by economic needs rather than with a tidy moral lesson for the present day. In any event, it’s good to know that Elizabeth Palmer lived long enough to see her daughter married, apparently more happily.


Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

Hm. The 1906 History of Little Compton actually makes me take the story a bit more seriously than I did before. It is quite different from the 1901 account, which contends that Elizabeth stuck around until after the birth of her first child before leaving Simeon and never mentions a wedding feast. The two stories have two things in common: Elizabeth left Simeon and the source of their disagreement had something to do with eating cats. The specifics are different, but the fact that both stories have those two themes in common makes me a bit more ready to believe that those elements have a grain of truth to them.

J. L. Bell said...

Another compelling factor for me is that there’s no reason to go from that epitaph to cat meat. It’s logical to imagine a doomed love affair was behind “should have been the wife,” precisely as that romantic novelist did. But to bring in cat meat? That’s the sort of detail no one would believe without strong evidence.

The word “cat” didn’t just mean domesticated house cats in the 18th century, I believe. It’s possible the family ate other critters. The Rev. Mr. Billings was supposed to have studied Native peoples, so maybe he picked up some of their culinary culture.